Canonical, the leading backer of the Ubuntu version of Linux, is hiring a team to help make open source software on the desktop more appealing and easier to use.
The company plans to sign up designers and specialists in user experience and interaction to lead Canonical's work on usability and to contribute to other free and open source desktop-environment projects, including Gnome and KDE, Mark Shuttleworth, Canonical chief executive and founder of the Ubuntu project, wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.
"We are hiring a team who will work on X, OpenGL, GTK, Qt, Gnome and KDE, with a view to doing some of the heavy lifting required to turn those desktop-experience ideas into reality," he wrote.
Shuttleworth has said recently that usability is the top priority for open source software. Free Linux desktops should have "a user experience that can compete with Apple in two years", he said at the O'Reilly Open Source Convention (Oscon) last week.
Some open source promoters have backed Shuttleworth, but said that businesses have a different priority to the consumers Ubuntu is aimed at.
"He's bang on the money. Linux absolutely needs more usability," said Mark Taylor, founder of the Open Source Consortium. "Having said that, it's not that hard to find," he said, pointing to the strides made by the Gnome and KDE user interfaces.
However, Taylor cautioned against the open source movement taking too rigid a line with developers on usability requirements. "I don't believe we need one desktop to rule them all," he said.
Consumers need a great user experience more than businesses do, Taylor said. IT managers are more likely to use Linux on servers than on desktops. Any desktop implementations they do work with are designed to lock the system down and keep the user within set applications and policies. "Even when they use a Linux desktop, delivering a user experience is not high on the agenda," Taylor said.
Shuttleworth said that the freedom of open source software, where developers are free to develop as they wish, can lead to user interfaces that are "patchy and inconsistent" between applications and operating systems, he said.
"One of the biggest problems in the free-software world is that so many objects are different, depending on the different desktops," said Paul Adams, a member of KDE e.V, the 'board' of the KDE project.
For instance, Ubuntu itself is normally available with the Gnome desktop interface, but one version ships with KDE. Both Ubuntu versions include OpenOffice, which is based on the GTK graphics library. GTK is also used by Gnome, so OpenOffice in KDE would have a different 'open' dialogue to that on the desktop.
"In KDE, we are looking at producing a cross-desktop, human-interface guideline set, so that, as people move between Gnome and KDE, they won't be shocked to see that the dialogues are different," said Adams, who is also projects director at U.K. open source company Sirius. That cross-desktop project, led by Celeste Lyn Paul of User-Centered Design, could create guidelines for common UI features.
"We already have a very usable experience," Adams said. "Are we up there with the Mac desktop? Probably not. But we have achieved something which is very mature and usable."